No end in sight
Six years on, Iraqis confront the tragedy of the US invasion amid spiralling violence, writes Salah Hemeid
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PRESIDENTIAL REALPOLITIK: US President Barack Obama participates in a meeting with US top general in Iraq Ray Odierno in preparation for vacating the war-ravaged country.
Until a few weeks ago Iraqis were still hoping the sixth anniversary of the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein would bring some good news to their beleaguered nation, especially in terms of national reconciliation, peace and stability. Sadly, the sounds and the sights of a war-torn Iraq are as much in evidence as ever.
Bombs, ambushes and kidnappings have returned with a vengeance to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities after a decrease in recent months, calling into question claims by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, backed by US officials, that Iraq has finally returned to normal.
This week hundreds were killed and wounded in a string of bombings that wrecked markets and other busy meeting places, events that blatantly contradict the rosy picture both Baghdad and Washington are trying to paint. Iraq remains a country caught in the sway of sectarian violence.
Iraqis across the country marked today's anniversary today with little fanfare, though perhaps with an element of "shock and awe" former president Bush so brutally sought to instill in the population when he launched his war six years ago. Indeed, the war has been a shock to the consciousness, provoking collective bitterness and outrage as the nation confronts how much it has changed after six years of American invasion, sectarian killings and fear.
This year's anniversary comes at a defining moment for the future of Iraq, following US President Barack Obama's declaration that US troops will withdraw by next year. That announcement's connection with the increased violence is well understood. The withdrawal of US troops was always expected to raise temperatures in Iraq, creating a security vacuum which feuding groups will try to fill.
In recent weeks the Awakening Councils -- the Sunni armed groups set up by the Americans -- have disintegrated, with some members rejoining the insurgency. It is this process of splintering that is believed to be behind the attacks that wrecked Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad this week. While the groups say the government has failed to pay them and has been slow to enrol them into the security forces, the government claims the councils are infiltrated by Baathists and Al-Qaeda members who plan to destabilise the country.
Regardless of the reasons behind the renewed escalation the recent fighting underscores the fact that the much vaunted security gains were fragile and the political situation remains volatile. It will become even more complicated when the Americans begin efforts to reduce the number of troops stationed in Iraq.
The country's rival factions have yet to resolve the conflict over power and wealth sharing and any efforts at reconciliation will have to overcome a host of contradictory demands and goals.
One fundamental problem is that national reconciliation continues to be hindered by the pursuit of ethno-sectarian, local and regional agendas. The last six years offer ample proof that politics and violence are part of the same equation. To solve one you have to solve the other. The recent escalation of violence is a clear manifestation of the fault lines that continues to exist between Iraq's religious and ethnic groups as they compete for power, influence and resources.
A key battleground will be the parliamentary elections scheduled later this year. They are expected to be fiercely contested not only between different groups but also within specific communities.
The situation becomes even murkier given the way Iraq's neighbours are vying for influence. Iraq shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait, and many of them are jockeying to have a say in the future direction of the country. Their support of the various internal factions in Iraq continues to pose a significant challenge to Iraq's long-term stability and political independence. Some of Iraq's neighbours host, train, fund, arm and guide groups opposed to the Iraqi government. As the American withdrawal approaches Iraq's neighbours are expected to try and increase their leverage.
As the political deadlock continues more bloodbaths appear inevitable though the Obama administration appears intent on remaining tightlipped about the bloody course into which Iraq is slipping. For the current administration the anniversary of the removal of Saddam, hailed by its predecessor as the liberating of Iraqis from a brutal dictatorship, is no time for celebration. President Obama and his administration have ignored the occasion even as explosions ripped through the Iraqi capital killing dozens of people. Obama's brief visit to Baghdad this week was intended to showcase his celebrity and highlight the reception he received from American soldiers rather than being a serious attempt to deal with Iraqi concerns. The US has had no ambassador in Iraq since Ryan Crocker left Baghdad on 13 February, a clear sign that Washington feels no urgency about the deteriorating situation.
The anniversary could serve to remind Iraqis of the need to end their nation's political drama and, equally important, that the solution to their national crisis rests in their own hands. Iraqis have to act responsibly, and fast, to dispel the notion that they are missing another chance for national reconciliation. If there is any good to come out of this week's carnage it may be that the sense of fear many Iraqis have voiced will shock politicians into a belated realisation of the depth of dangers facing Iraq.